There is something rotten in the kingdom of the NFL. For starters, there are no clear Super Bowl or MVP favorites, especially after the Denver Broncos lost to the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks ago. Play has been erratic and unpredictable. Championship hopefuls and playoff contenders from last year like the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons are near the bottom of their respective divisions with the losses piling up and their seasons ostensibly lost. These are what one could call “on-the-field problems.” But what about what’s happening off the field, as the pundits say? The two biggest stories of the NFL year thus far have nothing to do with actual game play. In the preseason, Philadelphia Eagles’ wide-out Riley Cooper was caught saying a racial slur on camera at a concert after an altercation with a bouncer. The video went viral, and Cooper got into considerable trouble with his teammates and the media. He was not suspended, the season began, and, last week, Cooper had a career day.
Now we have Richie Incognito, an offensive lineman on the Miami Dolphins, who the team has suspended for what has been called conduct detrimental to the team. His conduct in question: bullying and harassing teammate Jonathan Martin with violent, racist, homophobic messages and a reported physical assault. It is for these two reasons that the 2013-2014 NFL season will be remembered: not for Calvin Johnson coming within a few yards of breaking the single-game receiving yards record, not for Peyton Manning and Nick Foles throwing seven touchdowns a piece in one game, but for the ignorance and racism of some of the League’s players. The waves of negative publicity crashing against the NFL are getting bigger and stronger with each passing year.
The incidents involving Cooper and Incognito are not entirely comparable. Both men are white; both men made disparaging and racist remarks towards African Americans. But the similarities end there. As inexcusable as it is and will remain to be, Cooper, as far as the public knows, made one sweeping statement. Incognito’s bullying of Martin has been ongoing, focused and malicious in ways that make Cooper look tame by comparison. The reactions that Cooper and Incognito’s actions have elicited within the community of football players have been different and nuanced, too. The media and teammates alike have ostracized Cooper. No one came to Cooper’s defense. It was speculated that he might not be able to return to the NFL because other players would be unwilling to accept him after what he did. Incognito seems to be the greater of two evils here. Just look at what he has said to Jonathan Martin over the phone and text. It’s bad. It’s really bad. Couple that with what a female Miami Dolphins employee said about Incognito harassing and molesting her at a charity golf tournament, and we have a genuine scumbag, the likes of which transcends football and professional athleticism. But there is a litany of players around the league, teammates and media members that have come out, not necessarily in support of Incognito, but in decisive opposition of the Martin, the victim. Martin has been called a coward by many; it has been said that Martin broke the locker room code by going public with this. As per a report on Grantland.com, one player said of the situation, “I think Jonathan Martin is a weak person. If Incognito did offend him racially, that’s something you have to handle as a man!” What?
The culture of the NFL, already monstrous, is getting worse. When Riley Cooper insults a nebulous group of people one time, with one word, it’s almost the end of his career. When Richie Incognito repeatedly employs racism, fear, and violence in a deliberate attempt to shake another football player’s mental stability and health, Jonathan Martin is the victim twice over: firstly, a victim of what should be considered criminal harassment; secondly, a victim of American society at large that thinks all football players can’t have any capacity for weakness or vulnerability. One of these incidents is clearly worse than the other, but societal complicity with the poisonous pedagogy of football has turned athletes into emotionless machines and has made contextual harassment acceptable. Sports are supposed to build character, camaraderie and confidence. Football, in its current incarnation, destroys the foundation is should be building. The NFL bullying scandal is exactly why people think sports, especially football, are so slovenly and backwards. In this case, those people are not wrong. Any institution purporting Incognito is the example of manliness and Martin as an example of weakness has an institutional problem needing serious reconsideration. If a college student sent another student the material Incognito sent Martin, the sender would be criminally charged. The recipient, could, if so desired, receive counseling and help to deal with the inflicted trauma received during the incident. That’s the way it should work. That’s the way it has to work, but doesn’t in the NFL, in society as a whole. Football on every level needs to be more aware of the emotional precedents it has the capacity to set—both in the nation and worldwide.
The NFL metaphor goes that the turf is a battlefield, players are soldiers, and games are wars fought with the opposing team. Professional football players are not drones—they are human men, even if we are conditioned to think of them otherwise. They are big, fast, strong men that are paid for exactly that. They are not real soldiers, staring down enemy fire overseas, although they do risk catastrophic physical injury every time they play football. Football players are deified; real soldiers are not. Both have emotional needs. Time to change the metaphor.